Ever sense I could remember, there have been so much negativity associated with the label feminist. Last week, out of curiosity, I decided to ask many different women at Florida International University about their opinion about the feminist community and the reason why the word feminist seem to have so much negativity attached to it by society. The answers I received from the women varied depending on their race/ethnicity. The white women felt that feminism was just an avocation for gender equality, with a purpose to tear down a patriarchic society that privileges men over women. They felt that they needed the feminist community because it gives them hope that someday women would get equal pay, and would also be given the same opportunities and respect as men in our society. When asked why they thought the feminist label bring out so much negative reaction in people, many responded that it had a lot to do with males being afraid of losing their male privileges and their power over society, and that the women who hated the label suffered from internalized misogyny and would feel differently about feminism and would proudly start to embrace the label if they understood the true purpose of the movement. The women of color (black and Hispanic) had a completely different view on feminism and the reasons behind the negativity attached to its label. Most of them expressed that they felt excluded from the idea of feminism, and that the movement lacked intersectionality and focused mainly on cisgender, heterosexual, middle class, privileged white women. Al though many women of color agreed with the dictionary definition of feminism (that women should have equal opportunities and the same amount of respect as men), they dissociated themselves from the feminist label because of its negative history and it’s lack of basic intersectionality. Al though we are in the era of third wave feminism, which many self proclaimed feminists claim is aimed towards uniting all women of sisterhood by becoming more inclusive and intersectional, many women of color (myself included) still believe it isn’t as intersectional as it should be and is still pretty much exclusive to a lot of women who aren’t a part of the white demographic. Al though today’s feminism has came a long way from first and second way feminism, it is still highly focused on white women and is centered around their views on sexism, oppression, civilization and empowerment, and some women do not even realized this since we are conditioned to think that the experiences and general thoughts of white women represented all women, and by doing this we exclude the experiences of women of color which further oppresses them.
One thing I notice is that the women of color who actually choose to label themselves feminists, do so in a more specific fashion as a way to avoid being associated with mainstream feminism (white feminism). For example, many black women who label themselves “feminists” call themselves “black feminist”, and many Asian women may refer to themselves as “Asian Feminist”, this is done in a way to not be connected with white western feminism, which is seen to be looked at as the norm of what feminism is, which is why the term feminism is automatically thought of as white feminism, which is why many women of color don’t just call themselves feminist, but choose to be more specific in how they use the label. By looking at this, it seems clear that many women of color do not actually hate the label, but instead, hate its association with white feminism, a form of feminism that lacks intersectionality and has an imperialistic view of woman’s rights, it is sprinkled with white supremacy and white savorism. It is a form of feminism that does not take in to consideration the thoughts, opinions, and lifestyle of other women who aren’t white, and believes that nonwhite women (especially Muslim women) is in dire need to be “saved” from their “oppressive cultures” regardless of how these particular women feel about it. In this form of feminism, white women decides what’s oppressive to women and what’s not, what’s considered objectifying and what’s not, what’s considered a “woman’s issue” and whats not, who’s considered a feminist and who’s not, and they do this without even considering the views of other women. Basically, white feminism is treated as the voice of ALL women, but in reality it oppresses women and had been doing so for centuries. The fact that mainstream feminism and feminist discourse is shaped by the experiences and views of white women while women of color are completely invisible and unacknowledged, is an example of the privilege that comes with being white in western societies (white female privilege).
The “feminist” label have been stigmatized and attached with so much negativity and hate, not only because of today’s mainstream feminism and its current lack of intersectionality, but mostly because of the negative history of the movement. Throughout history, white women have been oppressed in the sense that they were beneath white males, but privileged in the sense that they were above everyone else due to their white privilege in an era of complete white supremacy, colonization and imperialism. Feminism was born from white women who wanted white males to share their privileges with them so they could also have power and control over others. Feminism was originally about advocating for certain rights for white women and making them more equal to white men, and also about imposing white feminist ideology on women of color by trying to condition them to believe that the white woman’s way of doing things was the more sophisticated and civilized way. They believed that their parenting was better, their domesticity was better, and their culture was better and that people of color should follow their lead for a more “civilized” way of life. White feminist viewed women of color as their burden (white woman’s burden), and believed that it was their position to teach them the right way to be a woman, mother and wife, which formed an imperial relationship between white feminists and women of color.
In my essay, I would be analyzing a very interesting passage from the Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook book and exploring the different ways that the attitude and mindset of the author demonstrates white feminism (also referred to as Imperialist feminism) and oppresses women of color, how it reflects the mentality of many white women during that time period, and also how the history of white feminism is the reason behind the stigma of the word “feminist” and how the history affects how many women of color view the feminist community today.
The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook book, was written by a white British woman who moved to India during the British colonization. The book serves as a guide for white female newlyweds who are having a difficult time trying to settle in an unfamiliar territory (India). The tone of the author reeks of white British female supremacy and is the epitome of a white imperial feminist mindset. The author views the Indian servants as child-like, barbaric, uncivilized people who are beneath the British, not only does she feels this way about the servants but the Indian natives in general. The author tries to educate the reader on how to “train” her servants in to being more civilized and obedient, and how important it is to condition the Indian servants in to believing that they are inferior to their “Madame” and the British in general.
One of the most disturbing things about this book is how the author views the Indian servants as simple minded children, and speaks to the reader as if they have some type of paternalistic authority over Indian people. Her feelings about the Indian servants are expressed in this short passage from the book:
Certainly, there is at present very little to which we can appeal in the average Indian servant, but then, until it is implanted by training, there is very little sense of duty in a child; yet in some well regulated nurseries obedience is a foregone conclusion. The secret lies in making rules, and keeping them. The Indian servant is a child in everything save age, and should be treated as a child; that is to say, kindly, but with the greatest firmness. The Laws of the household should be those of Medes and Persians, and first faults should never go unpunished. By overlooking a first offense, we lose the only opportunity we have of preventing it becoming a habit.
The tone of this passage kind of reminds of a scene from the film “Cotton Mary”. One of the male servants were falsely accused of wrong doing, and Lily (the Madame) was working up the guts to fire him. Lily called the male servant over, and when he seen the miserable expression on her face, he became concerned and asked what was wrong. “Is everything okay Madame?”, he asked, which was in a child like tone very similar to “Is everything okay mommy?”. The woman shift uncomfortably, rubbed her temples, cleared her throat and said “No…Master and I are very upset”. Not sure if those were her exact words but she said something very similar of that nature. The way she said this was so paternalistic, as if she was speaking to a small child. The way she worded her sentences and the tone in her voice disturbed me because it felt as if she was saying, “No…Daddy and I are very upset”. It was as if she viewed this man as a child, and unfortunately he sort of acted as if he was her child during this scene, so he was sort of going along with it. The entire thing reminded of a mother showing great disappointment in her child for doing something that disgraced her, kind of like a mother telling her 8 year old son that he was grounded for being disobedient with a teacher at school.
In this passage (as well as throughout the entire book) the author speaks to the reader in a very serious and straight forward fashion. Her words as well as her tone displays volumes of white supremacy, ethnocentrism, racism, bigotry and complete ignorance. In the first part of the passage:
“Certainly, there is at present very little to which we can appeal in the average Indian servant, but then, until it is implanted by training, there is very little sense of duty in a child; yet in some well regulated nurseries obedience is a foregone conclusion”.
she basically explains that training an Indian servant is going to be just as difficult and complicated as raising a child. It is like she is saying that molding Indian people to be the perfect servants for a British woman is similar to trying to raise a young toddler; it’s a lot of effort and hard work. She pretty much feels that until the Indian servants are trained by an “educated” European woman to do things by European standards (which she clearly views as the “cleaner” and “civilized” way), they will never do things the correct and appropriate way, and would mess up and destroy/damage things as if they were actual children. She believes that the Indian servants couldn’t possibly do their duties the proper way with out some really hard training from the British woman.
In the second part of the passage:
“The secret lies in making rules, and keeping them. The Indian servant is a child in everything save age, and should be treated as a child; that is to say, kindly, but with the greatest firmness. The Laws of the household should be those of Medes and Persians, and first faults should never go unpunished. By overlooking a first offense, we lose the only opportunity we have of preventing it becoming a habit.”
In this part of the passage, the author is telling the Madame that she should set rules for the Indian servants and be very strict with them about it. She should make sure they follow her rules, and not give them second chances if they make simple mistakes. If they make mistakes they should be punished. A few pages in to the book, we find that one of the author’s recommended punishments for Indian servants who get out of line or don’t follow orders, is to make them swallow spoon fills of Castor Oil in front of new coming servants and guests. She finds this very funny and see it as a way to humiliate them and also as a way to remind them of who’s in charge. This punishment was a very popular way that the British discipline their children, and sense the Indian servants were seen as children, this form of discipline was used on them as well.
The author’s white supremacy and ethnocentric attitude clearly had a lot to do with how she viewed the servants, which was why she thought so poorly of them but shown more respect towards her white servant, which were referred to in the book as a Mary Jane. The Mary Jane is trusted and respected by the Madame, while the Indian servants are seen as filthy, simple minded children who can’t do anything right without the guidance of a white British woman. The Indian servants have to be trained a certain way while the Mary Jane does not have to be trained at all. The fact that the white servant is given a name and is also more trusted and respected by the Madame, displays white feminism. The Madame feels as though that only another white woman could do as good as a job as her when it comes to domestic work, while nonwhites (in this case, Indian servants) need to be trained and treated as if they were children. . I believe the author viewed the Indian servants as children for the simple fact that she believed that their race, as well as their culture, made them inferior to her. She viewed their way of life and their way of doing things as uncivilized and stupid, simply because it wasn’t the British way of doing things.
In this book, it seems as though the author tried to sound as articulate as possible and also tried to make her intelligence show through her writing. In western societies, the more educated you show yourself to be, the more respect you gain from others, and the more power you have over people who do not have your level of education Many times in the book, the author mentions how educated the reader is (without even knowing the type of women reading this book) as a way to make them feel as though they are above the Indian servants. The author clearly feels as though the intelligence of a white British woman was more superior than the intelligence of the Indian people. To the author, the British women were sophisticated and intellectual and the Indian people lacked basic education and knowledge, basically having the mind and intelligence of really young children, and therefore needed the British woman to guide them and teach them the proper way of things.
It seems clear to me that the author, as well as many other British women in India during that time period, had oppressed their Indian servants not only because they thought the Indian people were inferior to them, but also because they wanted to finally be the ones in power over a group of people in the same way that white males had power of them. Al though white women had privileges over women and men of color, they were oppressed in several ways by white males. When these women came in to India, they finally had some form of power and authority over people in the same way that white males had power and authority over them. White feminists, like the author of this book, believed that they should hold power over the Indian people because their whiteness made them just as superior as white males. The author treats her Indian servants very poorly because she wants them to feel inferior, and view her as perfection. She seems to believe that the more inferior you treat a group of people, the more they’ll admire you and want to be like you, and this would cause them to listen to you, give you authority over them, and this kind of have some truth to it since imperialism/colonization had left a lot of women of color in many different countries wanting to be white.
The author’s attitude toward the Indian servants reflects how most of the white women viewed Indian people as well as other people of color. Many white women felt as though the Indian culture was full of uncivilized, ignorant, barbaric people, and felt as though it was their moral duty to “do the right thing for the children and the women”. In the early 1900s, members of the WNIA, a white woman’s reform organization, had gotten together and discussed whether or not it was a good idea to remove Indian American children from their homes and place them in to institutions where they could be raised the “more proper and correct way” by white women. While these women were having this discussion, they did not consider even thinking about involving Indian American mothers in to this conversation, which had a lot to do with them viewing the Indian women as uncivilized, child-like people who weren’t mature or intelligent enough to be involved in conversations concerning their own children. Soon, the WNIA made the decision to remove young Indian American children from their mothers’, placing them institutions where white women raised them and taught them how to be “proper” and “civilized”. This example is just one of a many ways that white feminists made decisions on behalf of women of color without involving these women in the conversation, which oppressed women of color. One of the issues with white feminism/imperial feminism is that they see themselves as doing what was best for women of color, as if women of color were incapable of deciding what was best for themselves.
In the beginning of the article, Imperial Fantasies: Mourning The Loss of Empire In The Novels of Penelope Lively and Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, the author mentions Burton’s views on the imperial relationship between British suffragettes and Indian women. Burton argues that British suffragettes felt as though it was their moral duty to “save” Indian women from a culture that they felt was oppressive to women. I think that in reality many white feminists felt the need to save women from their culture without actually stopping to think of whether these women felt that they needed to be saved for anything. These women felt as though they knew what was best for Indian women, and acted as though Indian women were just silent children who did not know what was best for themselves, which was insulting and disturbing.
In another part of the article, the author focuses on the relationship between white women and Indian women from the novels Heat & Dust. The main character, Olivia, does not have the same approach to Indian culture as most other Imperial feminists, instead she tries to defend the Indian women’s culture. Through this novel, you can tell that the author is an imperialist feminist based on how she narrates the story. She makes the Olivia character the voice of Indian women as if they couldn’t speak for themselves.
White feminism/Imperialist feminism oppressed women of color because it did not include them in discussions about decisions that would specifically affect them as women. It oppressed them because white imperialist feminism did all that they could to change practices in their culture and to impose their cultural beliefs on them because they felt that their culture was the epitome of civilization. They also promoted a white female supremacists ideology in their form of feminism.
The mindset of the author in the Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook book is similar to the mindset of many white imperialist feminist, who felt that they knew what was best for nonwhite women, and made political decisions on their behalf without even including them in the conversation (for example, the removal of Indian American children from their mothers). Due to western feminism’s negative history and the way it treated women of color, many women of color choose to not label themselves as feminists and do not want to be associated with the feminist community although they believe in gender equality. They do not want any part of something that oppressed them or their ancestors throughout history instead of helped them.
Many people say that the history of western feminism was a long time ago, and we should not reject the label or frown down on the feminist community, but in reality, many of today’s feminists still share the same mindset of the imperial feminists from the first and second wave feminism in the sense that their idea of feminism lacks intersectionality, and they also try to speak on behalf of other women instead of just including them in the conversation. For example, I was talking about police brutality with a white woman in one of classes who self identified as a feminist. I was basically telling her that black males are disproportionately murdered by cops over petty crimes, when she interrupted me just to say, “But yea, well, that’s a different subject, but when is society going to start taking seriously issues that affect us as women?”. Annoyed I told her, “well, last time I checked I am black before I am a woman in this society, and I have a black father, black brothers, black uncles, black grandfather, and they are 21x more likely than anybody in this country to be racially profiled and gunned down by racist cops and negative stereotypes are more likely to be used on them to justify their murders, and as a black woman it affects me because I love them and I do not think this is right. It also affects me because I am actually afraid to have a son, because I know I would be worried about him every second of the day (regardless of his age because young black children are more likely to be brutalized by cops as well) because people who are suppose to PROTECT him would most likely choose to murder him or harm him over ridiculous reasons”. I also explained to her that it also affects me because as a black woman I am far more likely (statistically) than any other group of women in this country to be racially profiled and wrongfully murdered by cops. It is women like her in the feminist community who think that issues that doesn’t affect white women does not affect women at all, and therefore isn’t a serious issue for women. Western feminism is still a little white centered, and I hope we could make progress on that some day to include other women in the conversation, especially when it comes to popular feminist organizations as well as political feminism.